Defining Piracy (And Fighting Against It) In Today’s Theatre Industry

Special Features   Defining Piracy (And Fighting Against It) In Today’s Theatre Industry Sensible intellectual property reform coupled with better business practices would go a long way towards cutting down on piracy.
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This may surprise readers familiar with my prior writing on the subject of intellectual property, but I am staunchly anti-piracy. I believe our current intellectual property regime is out of control, contradicts what we know about the interaction between creativity and influence, and violates what our constitution says about the purpose of copyright. I also believe that artists must be compensated and recognized for their work, and that not all art should be free.

In fact, in most fields, sensible intellectual property reform coupled with better business practices would go a long way towards cutting down on piracy. As Greg Kot’s Ripped notes, innovations in music piracy came as a result of rapid increases in the price for music. When consumers can’t get your product at a reasonable price and in a timely fashion, they resort to getting it for free, immediately, on the Internet. Understanding this dynamic doesn’t excuse piracy, but it does point to how we could all move forward to address it.

Theatrical piracy is different, however. Here, there’s no recording to rip. When we talk about theatrical piracy, we’re mainly referring to the unauthorized, unpaid-for production of a play. The usual explanations and understandings for piracy don’t apply. Rights for plays aren’t that expensive, and there’s little evidence that reforming copyright the way I’d like to would have much, if any, impact. The practice is indefensible, and it is dismaying that so much of it happens not in the professional sector, but in educational environments. Teachers must teach that valuing art means paying the people who make it.

There are, of course, other forms of theatrical piracy that we discuss less, particularly the pirating of theatrical designs and the much harder to prove pirating of staging. These are forms of plagiarism—the use, without credit, of other people’s work—but they could also be thought of as forms of piracy, as they are the unlicensed use of other people’s intellectual property.

With both staging and design, we’ve seen a vast shift in norms over the past few decades. If you pick up a script from Dramatists Play Service or Sam French of a play written in the eighties, you’ll likely see detailed stage directions recreating the play’s initial production, along with design plans for that production’s set. The scripts were published in a way that enabled a kind of reproduction of the play’s premiere. Today, the inclusion of production stage directions and plans is left largely to the discretion of playwrights, and we frown upon these recreations.

These norms could shift again. Given that our culture seems to be moving towards defining intellectual property ever more broadly, I worry that we are headed toward people claiming their interpretative production choices as property. This isn’t just an academic issue, as the production teams at Chicago’s Mercury Theater and Akron Dinner Theatre found out when their production of Urinetown allegedly hewed too closely to the original Broadway staging. These sorts of lawsuits raise questions of what authorship really means in a live, collaborative art form, questions that could quickly spiral out of control.

We work in an art form that is rooted in over a thousand years of history, one in which productions speak to each other across gulfs in time. Take Sam Gold and Annie Baker’s recent Uncle Vanya at Soho Rep. It was clearly influenced by André Gregory’s production and the film Vanya on 42nd Street. I doubt any of us feel that means Gregory is entitled to some kind of compensation for being influential.

And what of actors? Actors play larger and larger roles in developing shows; often their input in the workshop and reading stage is vital to the creation of a play, or a playwright’s vision of a character. Similarly, occasionally plays will change directors but keep at least some of their cast members, as happened with Sam Hunter’s The Whale when it moved to Playwrights Horizons. Or, to take a more personal example, when Joshua Conkel’s MilkMilkLemonade, whose premiere I directed, received a second production after I had moved from New York to attend graduate school, retaining its full cast and design team. In both cases, you could say the original directors’ choices had an impact on the next directors’ productions, but few of us would call this piracy or plagiarism.

The truth is, however, that we could. Or at least, we could try. There are no stone tablets handed down by the Almighty on Mount Sinai telling us what is and isn’t piracy, instead we have consensus, norms and a few court cases, many of which settle without the key issues ever being decided. This murkiness is to the art form’s advantage. Creativity and collaboration both rely on trust and on the work of other people. But the law seeks to make the murky concrete, and the complicated simple. This is why we should keep our understanding of piracy (and for that matter, plagiarism) to the very clear cases when scripts and designs are used without their creators’ permission.

(This article was originally published on HowlRound as part of #RightsWeek.)

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